James, Devotion #3: What is Your Purpose?

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Here’s what I hope you discover today:

  • All people will eventually ask themselves this age-old question: What is my purpose?
  • The great philosopher Aristotle believed the answer was happiness, or better, a life of human flourishing through rational contemplation.
  • James answered this question differently – we are to be perfect!

In our last devotion on the book of James, we finished midway through 1:4, and today I would like to take an excursus, or digress for a moment, as we come to an incredibly important Greek word that is used twice in verse 4. I believe understanding a little of historical background surrounding this word can assist us in discerning how James uses it. The Greek word I’m talking about in James 1:4 is the word telos, or as it is commonly translated in English “perfect” or “mature”.

To begin our excursus, I love Greek philosophy and it’s philosophers! They were courageous men who dared to question the traditional answers of the day, and seek new answers to their queries. Aristotle, along with his mentor Plato, undoubtedly were two of the greatest thinkers from that era, and laid the foundation for all philosophy for the next two thousand years.

For instance, Aristotle questioned why are we here, or in his words, what is our telos, or our goal, our purpose. In his day, as in ours, many thought our goal or purpose was pleasure, or honor and fame, and even to attain money and great wealth, but Aristotle knew these were futile goals to base a life on, or simply means to another goal. Aristotle even went so far as to state that people who based their life on pleasure or amusement were living a life of slavery fit for “grazing animals.” [1] Why? Because so much effort and suffering are a part of life, it would simply be “stupid and excessively childish” if all we had to look forward to was brief pleasures and idle amusement.[2]

Consequently, the great Aristotle surmised the telos of mankind must be:

“Moreover, we take the human function to be a certain kind of life, and take this life to be activity and actions of the soul that involve reason; hence the function of the excellent man is to do this well and finely.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, 7, 15)

Put another way, Aristotle believed mankind, as with everything, has a purpose, a telos, and whatever it is, it must be whatever allows for human flourishing, so that the human being performs in an excellent, or perfect manner! For Aristotle, as he investigated all of nature and mankind, he concluded the purpose of life for humans must be an active life of virtuous living by using our reasoning abilities.

IN THE WORD

What in the world does this have to do with our study of the book of James? Plenty! Read again what James proclaimed in James 1:2-4:

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (NASB)

We’ve already discovered that trials will come our way, and we are to joyfully accept them, knowing they are not purposeless. One purpose for trials is that they produce “endurance” or “perseverance”, or as I translated it “a willingness to cling to God no matter what.” But, that’s not the end of the story!

Here’s what else James tells us:

  • He reminds us that having the right attitude and thriving through trials produces “a willingness to cling to God no matter what”, but also that willingness to cling to God no matter what itself produces something – we become “perfect” and “whole”, or “entirely sound”.
  • While some scholars note that the use of “perfect” and “whole” together can simply imply we are to achieve moral integrity, I believe more is being said here. Why? Jesus said the same thing as James, and used the same word – “You shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48)
  • Consequently, our telos, or our goal and purpose for living is not to:
    • Chase after physical pleasure
    • Make all the money we can
    • Become famous and popular
    • Or even to tell others about Jesus
    • Give all our money to the poor
    • Etc. etc., etc.

IN THE WORLD

 Our telos, or the reason we exist, is to daily become more and more like God, because we were created in the image of God, and Jesus came to show us how that looks and he gave us the power to live the holy life, by the gift of His Spirit! All else is secondary to this because, for one reason, nothing else will satisfy and fulfill us.

In the past, I was hesitant to translate telos as “perfect”, thinking that meant we had to be sin-free, but now, as I shared above, I believe “perfect” is the best word when it is used in this way: Jesus is our standard and the picture of what human flourishing looks like!

So see, Aristotle was right, and also wrong – we all have a telos that enables us to flourish as human beings, but he was simply wrong on how to achieve it – we must have a meaningful, vibrant relationship with our perfect Creator, growing more like Him daily as we live as Christ lived (see Ephesians 4:12-13)! Consequently, we are not just the epitome of rational creatures as Aristotle believed, for we are more: we are meant to be perfect!

Let’s conclude with these thoughts:

  • What is your telos today? Or, to be more explicit, what have you been living for?
  • I really liked Aristotle’s comparison of the life of pleasure to slavery fit for “grazing animals.” Have you ever heard anything like that in the Bible? Even though Aristotle was writing hundreds of years before the New Testament, read Romans 6:16 for a comparison. Now, do you see what he meant by the futility of such a life and how we simply become a slave to our desires?
  • Incidentally, as you aim to be perfect, and more and more like the Father, living as Jesus lived, you will naturally do things like tell others about Jesus, give to the poor, serve gladly, and much more. But this – striving to be like Jesus – should be first. For a reaffirmation of this, read Matthew. 22:36-40.

So, what’s your telos?

RA

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Second Edition, Translated by Terence Irwin. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1999) p. 4, Book I, Chp. 5.

[2] Ibid, Book X, Chp. 6, p. 162.

Author: Randy Allison

I am an adjunct professor and pastor, driven to understand more about faith and how to live that faith in twenty-first century America.

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